Pensacola, Florida
Friday August 22nd 2014

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It Happened Here

Our Own Charming Opera House
by Jessica Forbes

Today, a plaque at the southeast corner of Jefferson and Government streets, just down the block from Seville Quarter, is all that marks the former location of the Pensacola Opera House. In the days before radios and electricity were available in most American homes, the gas-lit Opera House served as the premier entertainment venue in Pensacola for almost 34 years.

Beginning in the 1870s, Northwest Florida’s major lumber boom injected a significant amount of wealth into Pensacola. Daniel F. Sullivan, one of Pensacola’s wealthiest lumber tycoons, spearheaded plans to construct an opera house on his lot at Government and Jefferson streets. In the bustling port city, a modern opera house was enthusiastically welcomed. On June 2, 1882, the Pensacola Commercial announced plans for the construction of a “grand Opera House” in Pensacola, “the want of which has long been apparent.”

The Opera House was completed in less than a year, with many local craftspeople involved in the construction. A.V. Clubbs served as the contractor, and L.C. Bennett oversaw the brickwork. Reportedly modeled after the Academy of Music in New Orleans, Pensacola’s Opera House featured a slate Mansard roof, which a Mr. Salvant of Warrington constructed. The two-story building was designed in the Second Empire style of architecture, at the time a highly popular style in the United States that mimicked the latest in French building design.

The interior of the Opera House was as fashionable as the exterior according to the Pensacola Commercial, which reported that the auditorium had the appearance of “a first-class metropolitan theatre.” Holding approximately 1,200 patrons, the auditorium featured three levels and four private boxes. Ornate carving surrounded the stage and formed the rails of the balconies.  A large chandelier was located in the dome of the ceiling and was powered by the building’s “2,000 light gas machine”. Pensacola craftsmen constructed the large stage, various sets of scenery for productions, and the machinery that controlled stage effects.

The Opera House opened on Jan. 4, 1883 with a performance by Charles E. Ford’s English Comic Opera Company. Several hundred performances took place in the Opera House’s history, with minstrel shows and traveling opera and theatre companies performing regularly for the Pensacola audience. By 1905, at the height of its success and averaging over 50 performances a year, the building was remodeled, and an additional 200 seats were added to the auditorium.

Aside from the traveling productions it showcased, the Opera House was also available for local productions. The auditorium was built with adjustable floors so it could be reconfigured for various uses. For a fee, Pensacolians used the facility for amateur theatre productions, balls, lectures, and during the city’s Mardi Gras festivities. Programs reveal the community’s contributions to the Opera House, as small ads thanked local furniture stores that provided furniture for sets, and Clutter’s Music Hall, which provided instruments in 1898.

In the early 1900s, motion picture theatres such as The Bonita and The Isis opened in Pensacola, and began attracting audiences. The motion picture houses offered cheaper admission and a fresh form of entertainment for Pensacolians who were growing weary of the familiar stage shows. The collapse of the lumber industry in 1914 and subsequent downturn in the city’s economy also detracted from business, and the once popular Opera House began to struggle financially.

As its popularity waned, the building, like many others in Pensacola, suffered damage in the hurricane of 1916. Repairs were made, but in September 1917 another storm caused substantial structural damage to the building. With its declining patronage, owners decided that salvaging the building materials would be more profitable than reconstructing and reopening the Opera House. Pensacola’s first large performing arts center then disappeared, but its story is a reminder of the port city’s prosperity, and the grandeur available to lumber boom-era locals for the price of admission.

Jessica is a Pensacola resident with a Master’s degree in Public History. When she’s not digging up history facts, you can fi nd her at Music Box Pensacola.